By Cory Nealon reprinted from UBNow.
Published August 8, 2017
The investigation into how air pollution emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant may have affected nearby soil kicked into gear today with a gathering of elected officials, community organizers and scientists from UB and SUNY Fredonia.
The event — at the River Road Volunteer Fire Co. in Tonawanda — included citizen scientists taking the first of about 300 soil samples from sites in the town and city of Tonawanda, the village of Kenmore, Grand Island and the city of Buffalo that surround the plant.
“The situation surrounding Tonawanda Coke speaks to the importance of the Environmental Protection Agency and the critical difference residents can make in fighting for their community,” said Rep. Brian Higgins. “The soil study, a collaboration between various levels of government, the community, local businesses and the University at Buffalo, will provide further clues about the lasting impact of the company’s negligent actions and give us insight to make informed decisions moving forward.”
Joseph Gardella Jr., SUNY Distinguished Professor and John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry at UB, who is leading the study, said UB and collaborators from SUNY Fredonia and Citizen Science Community Resources (CSCR) will implement citizen science-based soil sampling in the city and town of Tonwawanda, parts of Riverside, Black Rock and North Buffalo, and parts of Grand Island.
“The soil samples will be tested using a state Department of Health-certified laboratory and cutting-edge soil-analysis techniques at UB and SUNY Fredonia to determine the impact that emissions from Tonawanda Coke have had on the surrounding environment,” Gardella said.
Jackie James-Creedon, executive director of CSCR, credited community activists with prompting local authorities to examine Tonawanda Coke.
“If it wasn’t for a small group of people believing that they could make a difference — and actually getting off their couches, going outside and doing something about it— none of this would have happened,” James-Creedon said.
The $711,000 study — officially known as “Determining the Environmental Impact of Coke Oven Emissions Originating from Tonawanda Coke Corp. on Surrounding Residential Community” — is a collaboration between members of UB’s Department of Chemistry, SUNY Fredonia’s Department of Chemistry and CSCR.
It is part of a larger $11.4 million effort — also led by UB researchers — ordered by a federal judge after Tonawanda Coke Corp. was found guilty of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Study participants are trying to determine how the violations may have affected the health of nearby residents and employees. Coke oven gas contains a number of toxic chemicals that are potentially hazardous to health, including benzene, a known carcinogen.
Statements regarding the Tonawanda Coke soil study
“The soil study being conducted is an important first step in assessing the potential longer term impact of the Tonawanda Coke emissions on our community,” said state Sen. Chris Jacobs. “The results of this testing will be critical to determining if any additional cleanup will be necessary to protect the health and safety of our community, and I am glad this essential work is moving forward.”
“I have supported Jackie’s efforts for the last 11 years. The City of Tonawanda stands with CSCR, UB and SUNY Fredonia, and supports the soil testing as a means to figure out what, if any, contamination has occurred because of the negligence of Tonawanda Coke,” said City of Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis.
“I encourage the community to stay involved in the process of the soil study. Positive action happens when people care,” said Grand Island Supervisor Nate McMurray.
“As a native of the Town of Tonawanda, I am honored to be a part of this important, groundbreaking project, and I hope that we can help the residents get a clearer picture of what has been happening in their community,” said Michael Milligan, professor in SUNY Fredonia’s Department of Chemistry.
“Citizen science — scientific research undertaken by members of the public — puts the tools of science into the hands of people who can use it to make a difference for the places they live in and care about. In some of the most powerful cases, such as here in Tonawanda, citizen science can be a tool for communities to create defensible knowledge and use it to combat injustice,” said Jennifer Lynn Shirk, interim director of the Citizen Science Association.